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Campaign 2012

At N.H.’s center, a town with a nose for winners

It’s uncanny, but as goes Ashland, so goes the state in GOP presidential primaries. It’s a perfect perch to gauge the political free-for-all of 2012

By Sarah Schweitzer
Globe Staff / October 2, 2011

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ASHLAND, N.H. - When the Republican presidential contenders depart Dartmouth College next week after their eighth debate, politicos will try to divine how it all played in this first-in-the-nation primary state - looking to population centers like Derry, Manchester, and Nashua.

Instead, they might consider Ashland.

This working-class town with chattering mill dams, hilltop views, and a tenacious downtown has long been an uncanny barometer of Republican sentiment in New Hampshire.

In all but two contested Republican primaries since the advent of the modern primary in 1952, Ashland voters have selected the candidate who ended up the state’s choice for nominee.

The exceptions: 1964 when Ashland went with Barry Goldwater and not Henry Cabot Lodge and Ashland’s 1976 vote for Ronald Reagan rather than Gerald Ford - aberrations that Republicans here will tell you only underscore their good sense.

The run makes Ashland an ideal perch from which to watch the twists and turns of the upcoming primary - as the Globe will do with a series of stories. In coming months, as candidates’ positions and personalities come into clearer view, Ashland voters will be asked to share their thoughts about which candidate they believe would best handle the economy, health care, the environment, immigration, entitlement programs, and education - and, ultimately, whom they will choose as their hoped-for leader.

Recent statewide polls in New Hampshire show Mitt Romney leading - taking 41 percent in one poll. Interviews with dozens of Ashland residents suggest that among those who have committed to a candidate, it is most often Romney, whom they view as a trustworthy man with valuable business experience. But many more are undecided.

“Oh, I’m keeping my options open,’’ said Sherrie Downing, a 48-year-old hair salon owner who wears a constellation of silver rings and bangle bracelets and lives with her machinist husband and two children on 28 acres. “I’d like to see what all their arguments are.’’

One hundred miles north of Boston, Ashland stretches along the Squam River. Here, Leyton’s Pub offers Tuckerman’s on tap but moves more Bud Light. The Cumberland Farms on Main Street sells Canadian nightcrawlers under the shelf of Poland Spring bottles, and the boutique a few doors down caters to the second-home crowd with $178 J Brand jeans. The down-low reliably can be gotten at Bob’s Shur-Fine Market. Rites of passage tend to be marked at the DuPuis-Cross Post 15 American Legion, like the other night’s celebration of Mark Ober’s retirement as town road agent, to tend his farm.

Politics in this town of 2,076 are personal. Everyone, of course, knows everyone, and votes on local issues tend to break along fault lines of those who favor change and those who don’t. Memories are long. Folks still remember who went which way in the vote to close the town high school and join up with a larger regional one in Plymouth 21 years ago.

Often, feisty independence drives decisions. Ashland voters were among those in the state who gave the nod to outlier presidential contenders John McCain in 2000 and Patrick Buchanan in 1996.

This is a town that declined $1.1 million in state funding for a new concrete and steel bridge spanning the Squam River. Ugly, townsfolk declared. Instead, they raised funds and erected a $189,000 covered bridge built by a local man, Milton Graton, who hauled the pine, fir, and oak span into position with a team of oxen.

The rhetoric of less government resonates here. Distrust of authorities has been especially high since the town manager admitted to embezzling nearly $1 million in the 1990s. The theft plunged the town into the largest municipal deficit in state history. Today, residents’ voices turn low when “that situation in the 1990s’’ comes up. If outsiders are present, conversation is redirected - “Did you know our elementary school was named best in the state in 2007?’’

Undeclared voters outnumber registered Democrats and Republicans, though Republicans tend to be the bigger vote-getters. Like much of New Hampshire, Ashland voted for President Obama in 2008. But of late there is brimming anger at Obama.

“Some of what he said is what we wanted,’’ said Lisa Ash, co-owner of the Main Street hardware store. “But it’s not what we got.’’

Many feel duped by Obama, saying that he promised hope and delivered a bailout for big banks. This time, they say, they are being more careful and listening intently to what candidates are saying.

“Romney’s a capitalist,’’ said Bill Bernsen, an Ashland resident by way of California who makes found-object assemblages in a gallery converted from the old train depot, circa 1849. “He seems like the kind of guy who would buy a piece of art from me.’’

But a far greater number of Ashland residents say that Romney is only one candidate among many.

Romney’s vacation house 35 miles away on Lake Winnipesaukee may not be an unalloyed plus. Ashland still grieves over its forebears’ decision to cede the majority of the area’s valuable lakeside property - Squam Lake, the pine-fringed idyll of loons and great blue herons featured in “On Golden Pond’’ and its cousin, Little Squam - to neighboring Holderness when the two towns separated in 1868. Ashlanders talk about “lake’’ people - the ones that a good number of them work for, tending their lawns, catering their lunches, cleaning their homes.

“Ashland is a great place,’’ rued Wayne Mead, a Vietnam veteran. “If you want to work for the man.’’

For many, Romney’s multimillion dollar lake house is psychically a world apart; he’s no more a neighbor than those Texans, Rick Perry and Ron Paul, whom many mention as strong possibilities.

Establishment Republicans, Romney’s core constituency, also voice uncertainty.

Consider Marion Merrill.

Merrill is 96. She is a former insurance company owner and town clerk. Long a leading figure here, she lives in a white Victorian on Highland Street, once known as Millionaires’ Row for the baronial homes erected by mill owners, fashioned with turrets and carved staircases of white oak.

Merrill is also a grandmother - notably of Jim Merrill, Romney’s chief presidential campaign strategist in New Hampshire.

Four years ago, at her grandson’s request, Merrill hosted a Labor Day breakfast in Romney’s honor. Hundreds of guests gathered in her garden and sipped coffee and ate muffins while Romney fielded questions. Four months later, Merrill cast her primary ballot for Romney.

“His past experience gave him a lot of wisdom,’’ she said.

So, is she supporting Romney again?

“I am not going to make my mind ahead of time,’’ she said on a recent afternoon, sitting in a recliner in her living room, her brow furrowed.

Romney’s 2007 visit was an aberration for Ashland. The town is minutes off Interstate 93, but presidential contenders are famous for skipping it, preferring to pop into the more populous college town to the north, Plymouth.

“No one ever comes our way,’’ said Pat Tucker, the town clerk.

Instead, candidates send their representatives, as they did the other night when the local Republican committee held its monthly spaghetti supper at the Legion, an all-you-can-eat affair with garlic bread, tossed salad, and a dessert table piled with pink sugar cookies, brownies, and cupcakes. Door prizes were heirloom tomatoes, wrinkled objects of admiration for the three dozen attendees.

As dinner wound down, representatives from the Rick Perry, Ron Paul, and Jon Huntsman camps gave soft sells to the crowd.

“I want to thank you for not having to force my own cooking on myself tonight,’’ said Perry’s 20-something representative, who the previous month had attended the dinner on behalf of Tim Pawlenty, the former Minnesota governor who had since dropped out of the presidential race.

Folks here hazard guesses why their little town mirrors the state’s conservative political soul. There’s its geographical position, lying smack in the middle of the state. (Officially, the center of New Hampshire is in neighboring New Hampton, but people in Ashland still claim the distinction, with T-shirts for sale at the Dollar and More store in the old L.W. Packard & Co. wool mill that declare, “Middle of Nowhere.’’)

Or maybe it’s the way that Ashland comprises so many of New Hampshire’s economic facets with its shuttered mills, lake houses, modern factories churning out gaskets and wooden shoe trees by the highway, and restaurants that cater to the Boston ski crowd headed north to Waterville Valley.

Like much of the state, Ashland has weathered the recession relatively unscathed. Property tax collection rates have stayed steady at 95 percent; one town position was eliminated and later restored.

But food pantry and welfare expenses have ticked up in recent years, and town officials are looking for new revenue streams, like charging $1 for a dump sticker- among other moves that have met with resistance from residents who say they have no more to give in these times.

More fundamentally, some sense that Ashland’s peak may have passed, with the once plentiful mill jobs gone. To be sure, Ashland’s last mill - L.W. Packard’s - was comparatively late to depart for China, in 2002. But as in other mill towns, thousands of empty square feet remain, awaiting a white knight to transform the space into condos or a restaurant, and today many residents work out of town.

Ed White - who owns a bait shop and grew up ogling the great homes of Highland Street, wondering if it was true that the grandest had an elevator - often reminds folks that even when the mills were open, things weren’t always perfect.

“Everything used to be Rosie,’’ he likes to say, referring to the nickname of the embezzling town manager.

For White, the summer has been one of frustration. The bridge closest to his shop was closed for repair, hurting business. But the bridge is about to reopen, ice-fishing season, his biggest, is coming, and the Republican presidential contenders are building momentum.

“If we get a Republican in the White House, I think it will make a big difference,’’ said White, who jokingly claims not to allow Democrats in his shop. “I think you’ll see growth once again.’’

Sarah Schweitzer can be reached at sschweitzer@globe.com.